Community Cohesion: the views of white working class communities – new report from JRF

By December 14, 2011Uncategorized

The debate over our future relations in Europe raises wider issues as to how communities in the UK respond to a changing world. As well as being an issue for politicians, and the frenzied debate within the Westminster Village, this issue also plays out in local communities across the country, where many of the public may take a more insular outlook not just towards our European Economic partners, but also towards changing communities. An extreme example of this was the incident on a Croydon Tram (quite near TCC‘s office) where a young woman was filmed expressing strong views on her perceptions of identity to the dismay of some other travellers – interestingly they were more concerned about the use of swearing in front of some children present rather than her views on identity – and was subsequently arrested and charged with a racially aggravated public order offence. The video itself has now been viewed over 11 million times online.

However the issue of Community Cohesion is not just about a one-off rant on a Tram. Reviewing the global economy in 2011 on BBC2’s Newsnight on Monday night the distinguished economics and  political philosophy commentators Richard Koo, Francis Fukayama and Gillian Tett all referred to the challenge to wider social cohesion if the current recession follows the path of Japan and lasts 10-15 years. Whilst Japan was seen as a culturally cohesive country that has so far weathered its economic storms, other countries in Europe, including the UK, were seen as facing much greater challenges in sustaining a cohesive society.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has conducted research into attitudes to change and community cohesion in communities that may be most vulnerable to globalising markets and the recession. Their report: Community cohesion: the views of white working-class communities was recently published. They make the important point that:

Community cohesion has been an important driver of government policy since its emergence following the disturbances in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford in 2001. It evolved into a programme that cuts across policy domains and the government continues to frame community cohesion in terms of common norms, shared values and trusting different groups and institutions to act fairly.

White working-class communities were engaged with in three neighbourhoods: Aston (Birmingham), Somers Town (London) and Canley (Coventry). These were not meant to be representative but to offer different perspectives on community cohesion from a white working-class perspective. A qualitative approach was deployed during the project in order to give the white working-class a voice as JRF believed that this could not be achieved by conventional quantitative approaches and community study days as well as focus groups, were deployed. Interviews with stakeholders were also conducted.

This approach is similar to the Community Cohesion work that TCC conducted for over 30 local authorities across the country in 2009/10 as part of the CLG’s Connecting Communities programme. Some people in communities often felt inhibited in expressing their views saying, “I can’t tell you what I really think”. These qualitative approaches allow people to express their views much more freely.

Compared to the much larger TCC programme the authors accept that their project was restricted to just three areas saying:

This was a small qualitative investigation composed of interviews and experiential research with fewer than 150 people. The sample and methodology deployed need to be considered but from the outset this was never meant to be a representative project.

As a result they say:

The data generated from this project should spur greater investment in research into white working-class communities using different methodologies including interviews and large-scale surveys. Much more work has to be undertaken.

This is essential. The three areas they chose are for all their differences, areas within Big Cities, all of which have had some degree of diversity from the 1960’s at least. Where their research misses out is working class communities in places such as Lincolnshire of Yorkshire mining communities where diversity has only emerged in the last decade. The previous TCC research sought to engage in those other areas as part of the CLG project.

As well as the direct contact, the JRF also conducted a literature review pointing out that:

In much of the literature, individuals belonging to white working-class communities are variously described as perpetrators of racial harassment, hostile to immigration and inflexible. A social construction of white working-class communities is developed. Typically communities are viewed as being problematic, dysfunctional and occupying annexed council estates. Fixed attributes are ascribed rather than recognising individuals residing in different areas with composite identities. Deviance and threat posed by white working-class communities pepper most academic and policy narratives. In contrast to the limited material on white working-class communities, community cohesion has generated a variety of responses. Initially a number of reports were published from inquiries into the serious disturbances of 2001. The reports recommended interaction between different groups and the development of common values. The community cohesion agenda was formalised into the machinery of government following the publication of independent reports. Much more recently the community cohesion agenda has moved to the issues of integration and identity. In the ten years since the disturbances there has been very little focus on white working-class communities in the community cohesion literature. The academic literature has been largely critical of the concept and policies of community cohesion associating it with a rise in intolerance and inequality.

Some of this stereotyping was described in Lynsey Hanley’s book Estates: An Intimate History as well as Owen Jones book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, however they were books aimed at the wider popular market, so this review has been worthwhile research survey.

The report drew out the following findings from its research:

  • White working-class residents not being heard. Three different areas came up with similar findings. The most important of these was the view that residents’ concerns were not being heard by policy-makers at local or national levels. Sometimes this was to do with a lack of political representation (Aston), being ignored (Somers Town) or not being engaged (Canley). Often this was related to neighbourhood change brought about by social and economic factors but the perceived impact of immigration and new communities should not be ignored. The strength of feeling varied in intensity, but in general residents felt that they were constrained and their views ignored.
  • Political disconnection. Connected to the first finding was the sense of policy and political disconnect in the study areas. Concern was expressed by political representatives and officers that community cohesion was not clear. There was a sense that government was not listening to the concerns of white working-class communities and not interested in engagement. Policy was seen in the context of political correctness, which had become a pejorative term meaning beneficial treatment to anyone who was not white working-class.
  • A need for fairness and equity. White working-class residents did not feel they have been treated fairly by government. The sense of unfairness was most acute in terms of access and allocation of social housing. The perception was that housing organisations rewarded groups who did not appear to make positive contributions to neighbourhoods.
  • Complexity of whiteness. The term white and working-class is more complex than the definition used in the study. However, those residents interviewed emphasised the importance of values based on hard work, reciprocity and support. Some white groups such as new migrants and students did not automatically qualify as white and working-class.
  • Interpretations of community cohesion. Stakeholders were largely critical of community cohesion and most residents had not come across the term, which has been largely focused on minority communities since 2001. Community cohesion was perceived as being driven by central and local government and not connecting with the concerns of local communities that formed this study. However, residents welcomed the opportunity to discuss neighbourhood change and commonalities with minority groups living in the same neighbourhood. Diversity and difference was not viewed as totally negative.

TCC, in its own research on Community Cohesion, would broadly agree with those findings. A lack of voice, disconnection, sense of unfairness, values determining identity and criticisms of community cohesion that is often driven by people or organisations with a different set of values to the community affected would all be areas we have drawn out from our own research.

The report argues in conclusion that:

A new framework is needed in which to listen to and discuss white working-class communities in order to balance the sometimes exaggerated attributes attached to these groups. They are seen as excluded from mainstream society in terms of norms and space because white working-class neighbourhoods, together with individuals’ pattern of behaviour, are sometimes labelled as being ‘problematic’. Various gaps need to be filled that demonstrate complexity in composition and make reference to power, conflict and neighbourhood loss. People who live in these neighbourhoods are diverse in terms of tenure, gender and age.

It therefore makes the following recommendations:

  • The need to reconfigure community cohesion. After nearly ten years of community cohesion as a key policy driver, the evidence from this study shows that it has not succeeded in creating shared values or reducing intolerance. The key priority for community cohesion policy was to ensure that grassroots issues are debated and discussed. No simplistic remedy exists for the perceived problems of white working-class communities but the answers are partly located within those neighbourhoods.
  • Making the case for diversity – initiate shared conversations and address policy disconnection. Government has not been effective in championing diversity and change. For the most part, policies designed to support improved relationships between different groups have not quelled concern about the impact of diversity. Residents felt that their views were not being acknowledged and that there was no space for discussions about change, immigration and access to public resources. Local conversations could be mediated and based on the principles of conflict resolution. This type of initiative provides the basis to bring people together on common interests and concerns.
  • The importance of informal and routine interactions. An important recommendation is recognising and valuing the informal and routine interactions that take place between different groups. Again, policy sometimes pushes us to find the dramatic project or intervention that builds community cohesion. This means emphasis is placed on creating formal programmes or places that people should come together. The findings from the project suggest routine interactions between different groups can have a significant impact. In shops, in schools and on the street, conversations begin to break down barriers and build cohesion. Informal community engagement presents challenges in terms of quantification and outputs, but residents suggested this is where most of the work in community building happens in practice.
  • The state as facilitator rather than driver. The next five years will be marked by dramatic reductions in public expenditure as the new government plans to cut the structural deficit. In contrast with previous governments, there will be less money to invest in neighbourhoods and address issues of community cohesion. This will be a small state in size and philosophy. Given the perception of its role and the reduced size, there is a need for government to act as a facilitator rather than a driver. This does not mean a withdrawal, but recognition that residents and community organisation will be taking on a much more important role in cohesion and community building. For example, the government and authorities could commission local conversations, support community festivals and monitor routine interactions but continue to enforce legal powers on equality.
  • Defining the white working-class. More research is needed to deepen our understanding of whiteness and how this is played out in the lived experiences of communities. Residents had a clear and proud sense of values and (to an extent) class, but whiteness was complex and did not necessarily include minority groups such as Poles or students. Specifically how does this vary across class and different contexts?
  • Grassroots communication strategies. A finding and policy recommendation is to plug the gap in terms of the policy and political disconnection that many residents in this project experienced. Concern expressed about the top-down nature and interference of policy needs to be addressed by local and national government. Given the emergence of the Big Society it is apposite to consider grassroots communication strategies using routine interactions and existing community organisations. The JRF recommendations have emphasised grassroots rather than top-down interventions. This could be achieved by developing a new cadre of community activists. The development work could cut across different groups and support a network of individuals who will help to focus on positive commonality rather than erosive difference. The end result will be, perhaps, an even greater reliance on grassroots community development as a tool to aid communities in understanding and accepting different groups and dispelling the notion that one has to be disadvantaged to the advantage of others.

TCC would also broadly agree with the recommendations. It is important to develop localised interventions that operate through communications which encourages congruent conversations delivered by local and authentic trusted lay ‘community communicators‘ and which have now been piloted in a number of local authorities to enhance methods of communication, engagement and feedback. Other elements include:

The above shows how the recent JRF research can be put into practice using an already developed and tried and tested menu of approaches that makes sure the voice of those disengaged communities is fed into a two-way process of engagement.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

One Comment

  • mercadeo says:

    This project aimed to critically analyse the concept of community cohesion by considering the views of white working-class communities in three different neighbourhoods in England: Aston (Birmingham), Canley (Coventry) and Somers Town (London).

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